Kimberly B. Moore from Early Childhood Today interviewed Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally recognized authority on brain development, about the pros and cons of young children using technology.
Early Childhood Today: Are young children's brains (ages three through six) well suited to the use of technology? (We define technology as children using cameras, computers, tape recorders, and video cameras in classroom projects.) If so, how? Are some forms of technology better than others for these specific age levels?
Dr. Perry: In order to answer that question we must consider some of the genetic biases of the human brain. For 99 percent of the time we have been on the planet, we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups of about 40 to 50 people. Our brains developed specialized capabilities for social affiliation, communication and various kinds of symbolic representation. Our cultures evolved through social interactions, initially without written language. The development of written language changed the way human beings developed, in large part by influencing brain development and expressed new brain-mediated capabilities that had previously been un-expressed.
I see technology doing the same things today. The brain clearly could not have a "genetics" specific for the use of a joystick. Nor could the brain have a genetics specific for continuous attention to a two-dimensional moving image such as those in the television. Yet external symbolic representation such as the written word, visual images on television, and complex three-dimensional videography are all sensed, processed, stored, and acted on by the human brain. Because the brain literally changes in response to experiences, these "new" (from a historical perspective) experiences (the written word or television) cause changes in brain development, brain organization, and brain function that were never expressed hundreds of generations ago.
Modern technologies are very powerful because they rely on one of the most powerful genetic biases we do have — the preference for visually presented information. The human brain has a tremendous bias for visually presented information. Television, movies, videos, and most computer programs are very visually oriented and therefore attract and maintain the attention of young children.
The problem with this is that many of the modern technologies are very passive. Because of this they do not provide children with the quality and quantity of crucial emotional, social, cognitive, or physical experiences they require when they are young. The developing child requires the right combination of these experiences at the right times during development in order to develop optimally. This cannot happen if the child is sitting for hours passively watching television.
Sitting young children in front of a television for hours also prevents that child from having hours of other developmental experiences. Children need real-time social interactions; technology such as television can prevent that from happening.
On the other hand there are many positive qualities to modern technologies. The technologies that benefit young children the greatest are those that are interactive and allow the child to develop their curiosity, problem solving and independent thinking skills.
ECT: Do you see the use of specific things like computers as part of an early childhood curriculum as being powerful enough to change brain development the same way you've just described television?
Dr. Perry: Absolutely. I think the difference between computers and television is that television tends to be quite passive. You sit and you are watching and things are happening in front of you but you don't do anything. Children are natural "manipulators" of the world — they learn through controlling the movement and interactions between objects in their world — dolls, blocks, toy cars, their own bodies. With television, they watch and do not control anything. Computers allow interaction. Children can control the pace and activity and make things happen on computers. They can also repeat an activity again and again if they choose.
ECT: As you look at 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds being offered opportunities like using cameras and tape recorders and video cameras in the classroom, do you think that based on your comments earlier on how children develop with real-time activities, do you think they have the capability of understanding and using those tools well?
Dr. Perry: That's actually a really good question. Preschool children are still having significant cognitive growth. In a very real sense, children think differently than adults. This is so because their brains have not yet completely developed. So to tape a conversation and replay it for an adult means something entirely different than when a three-year-old hears their voice on a tape. These experiences can be very positive and mind-expanding for a child — as long as they are done at the right time.
Children need real-life experiences with real people to truly benefit from available technologies. Technologies should be used to enhance curriculum and experiences for children. Children have to have an integrated and well-balanced set of experiences to help them grow into capable adults that can handle social-emotional interactions as well as develop their intellectual abilities.
I think that balance and timing are the keys to healthy development. Provide the right kinds of experiences at the right time. For example, if you take a newborn and do not hold that infant and put her in a seventh grade classroom and leave her for the afternoon, it's not a good experience. It can actually be abusive. But, if you take the 14-year-old child and rather than having them spend the afternoon in school, you hold and rock them all afternoon, that is not the right experience at the right time for that child. When a six-month-old child is strapped into a chair in front of a videotape designed to teach them a different language, that is a different experience than an eight-year-old child listening to the same tape. The infant's experience would be totally inappropriate, but the eight-year-old's may be great. What's important is when experience is provided and how it's mixed in with other crucial experiences.
ECT: Your comments begin to address an issue that's important today. As we move into the 21st century with pressure to gain experiences in technology, specifically computers, would you address how parents and early childhood educators could specifically work together to create this balance for young children?
Dr. Perry: While technology can help us teach children, in the end our children learn from us. Parents and teachers must act as facilitators in children's learning. For example, sitting down together and using playing cards is a very cognitive experience. They can learn how to add, they can learn how to predict, they can laugh, and they can learn how to win. In their interaction with a parent they're using this externalized object which is a playing card and a game. A very similar thing can happen with emerging technologies. I believe parents and teachers can take advantage of the interactive qualities of a computer to enhance the experiences available to children.
As parents think about the future they need to realize two things: technology is not going to go away and we are in the midst of a major sociocultural quantum shift. These technologies are revolutionizing the world our children will live in. So our task is to balance appropriate skill-development with technologies with the core principles and experiences necessary to raise healthy children.
We must keep the core principles of healthy development in mind as we incorporate these technology and tools. If we do that we'll be fine. And at the heart of any healthy child is the opportunity for enriching and nurturing interactions with other human beings. I think the key to making technologies healthy is to make sure that we use them to enhance or even expand our social interactions and our view of the world as opposed to using them to isolate and create an artificial world.
Unfortunately, technology is often used to replace social situations and I would rather see it used to enhance human interactions. And I think that can happen.
ECT: Earlier you began to discuss some of the pitfalls that you see with respect to using technology with children. Do you have any other thoughts or anything you would specifically like to cover there?
Dr. Perry: One of the obvious issues that all parents and even the people that develop multimedia material struggle with is controlling access to content that may not be developmentally appropriate. There are going to be computer programs and sites on the Internet and television shows that have content that may be appropriate for an 18-year-old, but very inappropriate for a preschool child. It means that in an environment where there is not parental control or the possibility for supervision, a child may have access to content that has extreme violence or presents inappropriate or destructive concepts such as racism, misogyny, or age-inappropriate sexuality. In the end, as with all other tools, adults must protect children from misuse or inappropriate access.
As we begin to create more child-sensitive television, for example, we will have to recognize that young children will understand in different ways from adults. For example, a 4-year-old child seeing the Oklahoma bombing — or a plane crash coverage on the news multiple times may think that buildings are blowing up all over the place and many planes crashed — rather than understanding that these multiple stories are actually from single events. And so access to information that is developmentally appropriate is something that we need to be very concerned about.
ECT: Would you address how you see specific opportunities for the use of technology to support children, say with special needs, are at-risk or who need assistance with language development?
Dr. Perry: Yes, in fact we have seen the use of technology here work very well to help children. The use of specialized computer programs has really helped a lot of kids that we work with. Even on the simplest level, if a child has some sort of fine motor or large motor problem so that their handwriting is very immature and very slow and looks sloppy, their esteem about their work product or their homework is very low. So they may be very reluctant to work hard because they always get negative feedback. They hand in papers that are all messy. You put them on a word processor and they can hand in papers that are clean and neat and they can see how to spell words correctly. Just very simple, non-specialized, software can be very helpful if used in the right way.
In addition, there are a number of specialized programs that allow children with certain information-processing problems to get a multimedia presentation of content so that they can better understand and process the material. They are able to see the written words and see a visual image and hear the sounds — all at the same time. Combining these sensory-modalities helps a child to more efficiently internalize information about a topic. If they have, for example, an auditory processing difficulty or a reading disorder they may be very bright but they don't read very efficiently so if something is read to them on a CD-ROM with visual images they are better able to internalize the information. This helps these children feel better about themselves because they perform better. They're not as afraid of school anymore.
There are emerging technologies used in traditional video games (e.g., Sega, Nintendo) that our group is trying to get dedicated to alternative interactive games with more stimulating but non-violent themes. We are hoping to use a variety of game-like models to teach kids language, to teach children about self-esteem, to teach children about the impact of trauma and how it can be overcome, for example. I think that when these technologies are actually used for more than entertainment we're going to see tremendous positive benefits.
Even now there are a number of good software programs with a primary educational focus on mathematics or reading. These programs, which are very engaging, challenge children to read better and learn how to solve math problems. When information is presented in a fun and engaging way, it is a lot easier than looking at a single page that has a bunch of columns of numbers you're supposed to add up.